Monday, January 03, 2005

Send In the Clowns

The breakup of the 2004 Dodgers, apparently the worst team ever to win a division title, is nearing completion. The exciting, scrappy, energetic bunch of players that so endeared themselves to us has been scattered to the wind like so many hot dog wrappers at Dodger Stadium.

You can now add Shawn Green to the list of expatriates that includes Adrian Beltre, Steve Finley, Jose Lima, Alex Cora, and Jose Hernandez. It's only a matter of time before Odalis Perez joins the castaways, and those are just the ones that made it to the end of the season. A more inclusive list would also contain Paul LoDuca, Guillermo Mota, and Dave Roberts.

There's no way to sugarcoat this trade. We're not even getting a decent pitcher like Javier Vazquez out of this deal. It's a salary dump, pure and simple -- and not even a very good one, since that it looks like the Dodgers are still going to pay half of the money owed to Green in 2005. The Diamondbacks will pay Green only $8 million next year, while the Dodgers will pay him the same amount to play for a division rival. Eighteen times next season the Dodgers will be helping to pay for one of the players trying to beat the Dodgers. How nauseating is that?

There is no way this trade makes sense. According to the LA Times, the Dodgers will be getting Dioner Navarro and a pitching prospect, while Peter Gammons says the Dodgers will get Navarro and two prospects. Not a major-leaguer in the bunch, although Navarro and his .275 AAA batting average is probably the frontrunner for LA's open catching position now.

As for the argument that dumping Green's salary (or half of it, anyway) frees up money to sign a starting pitcher, all I can say is that the only decent SP left on the market is Derek Lowe, who wasn't even as good as Odalis Perez last year. He's hardly the answer for the Dodgers' rotation problems. Pavano or Clement or Milton would have been better, but they're gone now. And besides, according to Dodger Thoughts, the Dodgers probably could've been able to afford a guy like Lowe and keep Green, without going over the magical (and probably, mythical) $100 million threshold that McCourt promised.

As for Lowe, I take it back. He's not decent, and he wasn't anywhere near as good as Odalis Perez last year, putting up a lousy 5.42 ERA with just 105 strikeouts. But because he's the last of the big-name pitchers left on the market, DePodesta is going to have to overpay for his services, probably to the tune of about $10 million per year.

And remember scrappy, energetic, and exciting? Next year's team is going to be big, lumbering, and slooooow. Izturis, Bradley, and Drew will provide a little bit of speed at the top of the lineup, but after that the Dodgers will be playing station-to-station, wait-for-the-three-run-homer type baseball. It looks like Kent will bat cleanup, followed by Choi, Werth, Valentin, and probably Navarro, each guy slower than the one before him. Valentin, Navarro, and the pitcher's spot will be a black hole of offense at the bottom of the order that will kill rallies and stifle big innings. Looking at their stats, I suppose it's not out of the realm of possibility that Choi will effectively replace Green's production in the lineup, but it's a longshot, especially considering that Green has a recent track record of near-.600 slugging percentage seasons, should be recovered from his shoulder surgery, and is in the walk year of his contract. Choi, meanwhile, is a young player burdened now by high expectations and a slow bat, and I'm still not convinced he can get hits off of anyone except the fifth starters of the league.

On the brighter side, I note that Arte Moreno has gone through with his threat to dump on the loyal fans of Orange County that he professes to care so deeply for. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who missed the three-ring circus I had always associated Angels baseball with. Despite being the home of two of the six division champs, Southern California baseball fans can't be too happy with their teams right now.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Strange Days

The dismantling of the 2004 NL West division winning Dodgers continues. Normally, a team has to get old and make a few trips to the postseason before a rebuilding phase starts. Paul DePodesta has apparently decided that one playoff win was as good as this team was going to get.

I've already commiserated over the fact that the Dodgers got outbid by the Mariners (God, I never thought I'd put that string of words together) for the services of their homegrown 25-year-old star, Adrian Beltre. As my head was reeling from that unpleasantness, I heard about the possible Green-Vasquez-Unit deal.

That trade is on holdup as of this moment, as Arizona tries to coax Green into accepting a contract extension to play in Phoenix. The Dodgers are reportedly trying to wheedle another player for their suddenly depleted lineup, and even Randy Johnson is rethinking life in the Bronx. However, I'll try and analyze the deal as it is.

The Yankees get rid of their rotation headache and land the Big Unit, which combined with Pavano, Wright, Brown and Mussina gives them the killer rotation they were lacking last year. They also lose their two best prospects, but that's not saying much, considering how barren their farm system is. The Diamondbacks lose Randy, but in return they get a very good starter who's something of a medical question mark, a tremendous young bullpen arm, and Shawn Green, a streaky slugger who can be alternately devastating and whimpering, but who's probably due for a comeback year.

The Dodgers would get Javier Vasquez, who had three and a half very good years before becoming unglued in the 2nd half of 2004. He's still owed $34 million over the next three years, but I figure that the Yankees will be paying a portion of that. He should be better this year, pitching in Dodger Stadium, and he doesn't have the medical uncertainties surrounding Brad Penny. Neither of the two prospects are blue-chips, although Dioner Navarro might be able to compete for the starting catcher job this spring. Losing Brazoban is hard to swallow (and he's not the kind of guy you want to give up if you're starting a youth movement), but he was probably the deal-breaker; Arizona wouldn't make the trade without him.

DePodesta must really want Green and Penny out of here. Yes, Green has a bad contract, but he's only owed $16 million for 2005, and then the Dodgers are done with him. The Dodgers are going to end up owing Vasquez as much as twice that amount, and are on the hook with him until 2007. Unless this trade is a pure salary dump (which it may very well be), the only way this makes sense is if the Dodgers use the money to sign at least two of the top remaining free agents, perhaps Clement and Drew, or maybe Delgado. As is stands right now, the Dodger lineup and rotation is headed for a 100-loss season.

On the surface, this trade indeed looks like a Kansas City Royal-type salary dump. I've been fuming over McCourt and his empty promise to keep a $100 million payroll, but what makes no sense here is the Jeff Kent signing. Why commit that kind of money to an aging player like that if he was looking to cut payroll? By himself, Kent is nearly worthless. Combined with other big hitters in a potent roster, he can be a valuable down-lineup role player. DePodesta has been saying that the Dodgers will field a competitive team with a big payroll next year, and the Kent deal would seem to indicate that. So I've got to believe that the Dodgers are still going to be players in the free-agent market, or what's left of it.

One more note: The LA Times this morning reported that the Dodgers final offer to Beltre was a ridiculously low six years, $60 million. If that was really the case, then I get the feeling the Dodgers never really had any intention of re-signing Beltre. That's a serious lowball offer, only made to give McCourt plausible deniability: "Hey, we tried to re-sign him! We made him an offer! It's not our fault he took the money and ran!" Between that offer and the one he eventually got from the Mariners, I guess I can't really blame Adrian for signing with Seattle - although he and Boras aren't blameless; the Dodgers should have been given the opportunity to match that offer. Other sources are indicating that the Dodger offer was actually six years at $70 million, which is a bit more reasonable. But it seemed to be more important to Boras and Beltre to get the higher annual salary and be able to return to the free-agent market at age 30, when he'll be able to sign yet another lucrative contract.

The past 24 hours have been unnerving, to say the least. It's impossible to tell what direction this team is heading in. It's like being a passenger in a bus that you have no idea what the destination is. You just have to sit back and trust that the driver knows what he is doing, and you'll either be very happy or very upset when you disembark. Until then, you just have to wait.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Welcome to the Neighborhood

For five and a half years, Dodger fans had to put up with Adrian Beltre and his mediocre production, all while listening to the pie-in-the-sky stories of his seemingly limitless upside and potential. And yet we stood by him loyally, through the two-year appendectomy recovery and season after season of .260 batting averages and 20-odd homeruns, telling all the doubters and naysayers, "Just you wait. He'll be great someday, watch and see."

So, in 2004, he finally got great. He put up one of the greatest seasons for a third baseman in history, in his walk year, of course. And this is what we get for it? Jilted by Scott Boras, who drove Beltre straight to the team offering the fattest bi-weekly paycheck. The Dodgers offered more years and more money, although presumably at a lower annual rate. The loyalty of the fans and the organization who invested in him, was patient with him, and for whom he blossomed into a superstar obviously didn't matter in the least. He's a whore just like the rest of them.

And as we watch Tim Hudson get traded not to the Dodgers, but to the Braves, and see the holes in the roster turn into gaping chasms, we can all sense a more disturbing trend at work here. The Dodgers will no longer be contenders for the premium players in baseball. We will not be able to sign the big-time free-agents, or swing the blockbuster trade that nets us a superstar. The competitive, $100 million+ payroll we were promised by Frank McCourt was apparently a myth. The high-rent district inhabited by the Yankees and Red Sox and (ugh) Angels is now off-limits to us. We are now permanently relegated to the part of town that the A's and Pirates and Brewers live in. This is where the clubs who live off the scraps from other teams reside. Who can't keep their own stars from bolting at the first sign of free-agency. Who live and die on the success of their farm system and the wit and guile of their management. It's a precarious existence in this neighborhood.

We don't need to be like the Yankees, greedily gobbling up the premium players on the market every offseason. And we sure don't want to be like the Mets or Orioles, giving bloated contracts to undeserving or past-their-prime free agents. But we also don't want to be like the A's either, always skating by with a bargain-basement team that wins only if they overachieve. Don't get me wrong, I love a scrappy group of unheralded overacheivers as much as the next guy, but that's not the baseball model the Dodgers should be following. Hiring a Billy Beane protege like Paul DePodesta should have introduced an element of that, but that should not be the overall modus operandi for the tradition-rich, major-market Los Angeles Dodgers.

There is no reason we should have been spurned by our own star free-agent, especially considering the deal he ended up signing for was a lot less outrageous than I personally thought it was going to be. I can't believe the McCourts couldn't at least match the five years, $64 million Beltre got from the Mariners. That's less per year than Shawn Green is making and slightly more than Darren Driefort, both of whom will be off the Dodgers' books by 2006. And at only five years long, it's not as constraining as the six- or seven-year contract that the Dodgers were reportedly offering. For all his talk about the folly of tieing up a lot of money in a single player for a long period of time, DePodesta revealed that his only real constraint in re-signing Beltre was the thinness of Frank McCourt's wallet.

Major League Baseball thought they were going to keep a drag on player salaries by forcing the team in the 2nd-biggest media market in the nation into the hands of a cash-strapped owner. As this winter has seen, other teams like the Angels and Mariners have stepped up and brought back a return of the free-spending days of the late 1990s. And the Dodgers are left behind in the low-rent neighborhood, clipping coupons and shopping at Wal-Mart, while the Mariners and Scott Boras take Adrian Beltre out for dinner at Pastis and a spending spree at Barney's.

I guess I can't blame him. A whore has to look good, too.


Friday, November 19, 2004

Institutional Buffoonery

Whew, time to take a respite from the offseason hiatus (?) and blow some dust off this joint. School's coming along fine, thanks for asking, but it doesn't leave a whole lot of time left over for blogging. With the end of the World Series, I decided to get my priorities straightened out, vis-a-vis my free time. The blog, unfortunately, found its way down the list (at least until spring training starts). So, some quick takes before I launch into what brought me out of my temporary exile: The Lakers are just about where we thought they'd be. The Clippers are better than we thought they'd be. And I still have a funny feeling that the BCS will figure out a way to fulfill the "Mandatory Pac-10 Screw Job" clause in its charter and concoct a scheme to keep USC out of the Orange Bowl.

One of the stories that I've been following from my cross-country perspective is the efforts by Arte Moreno to rename his team the "Los Angeles Angels." It involves issues of civic pride and regional recognition, and this piece from today's LA Times, captures the essence of the controversy better than any other so far.

Historically, I've never had much regard for the Angels. I don't mean that in a negative way, I just mean that I never really had the team on my radar. While I was growing up as a huge Dodger fan, the Angels were just the somewhat local American League club with endemic institutional buffoonery that played nearby, but not that nearby. I never understood why they shared front-page space with the Dodgers in the LA Times sports section. (There's a part of me that still doesn't understand.) The Los Angeles Dodgers were Los Angeles' team; the California Angels were... somebody else's team. Even when they had their big playoff run in 1986, right after my formative experience with the Dodgers in '85, I just couldn't bring myself to care about them in any significant way. If they had a good year, that was nice. If they didn't, whatever. It's just the Angels. No big deal.

Obviously, a big part of that was the relative history and tradition of the two teams. The Dodgers had a pedigree and a long lineage, with Hall-of-Fame players, World Series championships, and a secure, rightful place in American lore. The Angels had... Bo Belinsky. That the Angels were just inherently inferior to the Dodgers was a given, an immutable fact of baseball in Southern California. Even in the 1990s, while the Dodgers endured a calamitous decade on and off the field, the Angels couldn't capitalize. They had their own on-field disaster in 1995, and seemed forever doomed to be the red-headed stepchild to the Dodgers' golden boy.

Of course, that all changed in 2002. Yeah, I rooted for the Angels that year, in the same way I was rooting for the Red Sox this year. It was the underdog thing; I didn't care much about the team overall, but it was nice to see the perennial whipping boy make good. (The fact that their World Series opponent was the Giants made that somewhat easier.) But that championship shifted the regional dynamics that had always been in place. The Angels could no longer be looked down on in disdain by the Southern California baseball cognoscenti. Orange County's little red-headed stepchild had captivated the region. AK and Ecks and Glaus and Percy and K-Rod had become household names. Angels gear was the hot fashion in the malls and on all the beaches. The LA Times had become Your #1 Source for Angels Coverage! (The Times started regularly listing the baseball standings with the AL always above the NL, meaning that the Angels would always be at the very top of the column, while the Dodgers place in the standings was buried halfway down the page, below the American League probable starters. A minor point, but a subtle, all-too-apparent embodiment of the Dodgers' diminished stature.) For us Dodger fans, at that point enduring a 14th straight year of postseason futility, these were all vaguely disturbing trends.

Then Arte Moreno stepped into the picture. He came in and basically said, "I'm not going to allow 2002 to be some kind of fluke. This team is going to have the payroll to compete with the big boys, and we're going to put a perennial winner on the field. Oh, and by the way, I'm slashing the price of beer at the concession stands." Meanwhile, our beloved team was being written off by the Fox Group, and MLB was fervently pulling the strings so that a financially-constrained owner would succeed to the throne. The fans of Orange County, for too long neglected by the sports gods, were bursting with pride, and for the first time ever, the Dodger faithful were looking wistfully towards the Orange Curtain.

Last offseason's Vladimir Guerrero debacle was emblematic of an Angels franchise that seemingly could do no wrong, while the Dodgers were struggling to do anything right. Moreno started charging hard after the Los Angeles market, with an aggressive advertising campaign that proclaimed the Angels as LA's team, with strapping Anaheimians like Kennedy and Erstad deviously slapping the Angels logo on various LA landmarks. In contrast, the Dodgers' big advertising push in 2004 featured a family of talking bobblehead dolls.

The Dodgers needed a successful 2004 in more ways than one. A reassertion of authority in the suddenly competitive Southern California baseball market was essential for a franchise that had taken its primacy for granted for far too long. The Dodgers indeed had a successful year, re-energizing and reinvigorating a fan base that had been starved for October baseball. But the Angels had a successful year, too, with an exciting playoff run and an MVP season out of Vlad. LA is pumped about its team -- its real team, the Dodgers -- and Orange County is still beaming about its team. The stage, perhaps, has been set for a mutually beneficial golden era of healthy competition between the two clubs, and maybe even a genuinely passionate cross-town (or cross-region) rivalry will develop.

But now Arte Moreno is trying to screw everything up. He has made all the right moves since he became owner of the Angels two years ago, but I think he is making a colossal blunder with his attempts to drop "Anaheim" from the team name. The emergence of the Angels the past few years has given Orange County a boost of civic pride, rare for a region of sprawling suburbs and isolated communities. It's a feeling that, for maybe the first time ever, the region can stand on even footing with Los Angeles. Moreno is undercutting that, badly. He is ruining a lot of the goodwill he built up with an Orange County fan base that wants nothing to do with their smoggy northern neighbor. I remember how the Raiders' civic support dwindled when Al Davis, in an effort to broaden his fan base, removed "Los Angeles" from the team's gear, schedules, logo, and tickets. Moreno has already taken that step, and I could see the same thing happening in Anaheim. The local passion that has been built up for the Angels could dwindle because of the subvert message that the team seems like they don't really want to be here. A team that disregards their loyal fans like that is a team headed for irrelevance. For a case study of this, please look under Expos, Montreal. (Also, remember how well the Los Angeles Rams fared while they played in Anaheim? The examples of why this is a bad idea are too numerous.)

No matter how many 'A' logos get plastered all over town, the Angels are not an LA team. The huge LA-Long Beach-Orange County metro agglomeration may be a single market under TV definitions, but the region is simply too geographically far-flung to reasonably have two teams claiming the same principal city as their respective base. Let's face it, the Angels play in a huge urban setting that is 40 miles removed from Los Angeles proper. They already have their own region, one that's plenty big enough to call home base. The Dodgers and Angels are not the Cubs and White Sox, or the Mets and Yankees, teams that legitimately inhabit single cities. They are, however, much more like the A's and Giants: Regionally similar but geographically distinct rivals that share the same television market.

As usual, money is behind this nonsense. Moreno wants to be able to able to market the team better by attaching the bigger name to it. For a guy who claims to be all about the fans first and foremost, this is a hypocritical slap in the face. So far, Anaheim mayor Curt Pringle has held his ground, and says he is going to hold Moreno up to his contractual obligations to call the team the "Anaheim Angels". But I'm sure the back-scratching payoff is not far behind. Already, a compromise offer has been made, according to the LA Times article: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

And just like that, the golden era is over, and the Angels are back to being the buffoons of baseball.


Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Finally, It's Over

The best line of the night, courtesy of Jim Caple at ESPN.com:

In hindsight, perhaps it was a mistake for the Yankees to raise a "Mission Accomplished" banner above their dugout after Game 3.

New York is on mass suicide alert. Boston has just drowned in spilled beer. Details to come...

If Only They Could Both Lose...

It's been slim picking around here lately, as my workload has reached the point where it kills most of my blogging time. And with the Dodgers now working on their golf games, I can't make a dedicated effort to stay up-to-date. I'm just not that interested in whether or not Jim Tracy can make the green in three.

Needless to say, New York is in a state of hysteria right now. The radio shows are blathering on about how this is the most important game in the history of the Yankee franchise. I hate to say it, but they might be right. For the New York Yankees to be the first team ever to cough up a 3-0 posteseason lead, and to do it to the Red Sox, of all teams, would be a stain they could never erase.

Now, it's not like the Yanks would become cursed or anything if they lost tonight. With Steinbrenner's endless pocketbook, a curse-buster is only a free-agent signing or two away. But they would never live this down if they lose this game. For the Red Sox, on the other hand... what can you say? They either win tonight, in which case they break the curse (?) and get over on the Yankees for the first time ever, or they lose, in which case New Englanders get to go back to doing what they love to do: moaning about the oh-so-cruel twists of fate they must endure as fans of the most star-crossed team in sports.

I've always said that the Red Sox would lose their identity if they ever won the World Series. They'd turn into the Marlins or Diamondbacks or Angels, just another team that got hot in October and won a title. Don't get me wrong, I'd give anything for my team to get hot in October and win a title, but the only thing special about the Red Sox and their fans is that air of inevitable doom that always follows them around. They just wouldn't be as interesting if they finally won it all, although it would be entertaining to see the city of Boston fall into the Atlantic.

Honestly, I hate both these teams. I hate the Yankees because they're the corporate behemoth of baseball, and I hate the Red Sox because of their insufferable woe-is-us routine. Of course, I'll be watching tonight, but only as an objective baseball observer.

Not that anybody's noticing, but meanwhile, the Cards and Astros have been playing a pretty entertaining series. And I still think either of them can beat the eventual AL champ in the Series. It's been that kind of year.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Requiem for a Heavyweight

A crushing workload the past week has kept me from updating the site recently, but rest assured, I was still finding time to follow the final lunging, desperate convulsions of the Dodgers' 2004 season.

With the obvious exception of emerging victorious in the World Series, the season came to an end in the best manner possible. The Dodgers fought gamely and valiantly, but lost to a team that was just simply superior. I wouldn't be saying that if the Dodgers had lost to the Braves or Astros, but the Cardinals are a tremendous team, and one that deserves to go all the way. We didn't get upset, or fail to show up, or choke away a sure thing. With all the consternation over Odalis and the weak showing of our starting pitching, the fact remains that the Cards are an offensive monster and our starters just weren't good enough to stop them. True, when we needed him to step up and be the dominant pitcher we all know he can be, Perez just couldn't come through. But Dodger fans' rosy reflections of 1988 might be clouding the judgment of some. That year was an aberration; 99% of the time, the better team wins.

I've got no regrets. This was by far the best Dodger season since '88. The 53 come-from-behind victories made this the most entertaining team I've ever followed. Eric Gagne's save streak made us all proud of our homegrown bullpen ace. Adrian Beltre's emergence gave us our first homerun champion of the LA era. Jose Lima's masterpiece on Saturday electrified a Dodger nation starved for postseason thrills. Steve Finley's grand slam against the Giants on Oct. 2 gave Dodger fans a moment we can treasure for decades. There's no way I can have hard feelings about this season.

Under the O'Malley ownership, the Dodgers were far and wide recognized as one of the classiest organizations in baseball. That reputation is in tatters after the neglect of the Fox era, and management's current string-jerking of Ross Porter and Nancy Bea Hefley isn't doing anything to repair it; however, Jim Tracy's gracious move of having the team come onto the field and shake hands with the Cardinals was one of the finest displays of class and sportsmanship I've seen on a baseball field. In my clinical cynicism, I'm waiting for the morons to jump up and down on the Dodgers for shaking hands and congratulating the team that just eliminated them (too bad I can't listen to LA talk radio today, although maybe that's a good thing). Plaschke, of all people, nailed it today:

Strange, indeed, for a Los Angeles professional sports team with a history of championships to behave this way.

Stranger still that it makes sense.

If these were the Lakers, and they lost in the first round of the playoffs, then congratulated their opponents, then appreciated their fans, then hugged each other, we would question their fire.

But on this unlikeliest of Dodger teams, that fire has long since been confirmed, on the wick of 53 comeback victories, in the torch of a West Division championship won by a team whose heart had been gutted two months earlier.

Of course, this is Plaschke we're talking about, so anything intelligent has to be immediately followed by something moronic:

But, appropriately Sunday, it came down to the two issues that have clouded this special season like a mist rolling in over the right-field pavilion.

The starting pitching, and The Trade...

"To me, this totally shows how our general manager does not deserve the criticism for trading for a starting pitcher, because he knew that element would be necessary," Tracy said.

To me, Sunday totally revealed just the opposite.

The Trade bit the Dodgers for the final time after Perez went down and was replaced by Wilson Alvarez.

So Plaschke himself says that starting pitching was one of the Dodgers' fatal flaws, provides a Tracy quote backing up that assertion, then continues to excoriate the general manager who pulled off the deal made specifically to bolster the starting pitching.

Yes, I too thought that Brazoban should've been brought in to face Pujols. But the lack of Mota in the bullpen had nothing to do with that move, or non-move, as it were. Without the trade, we might never have seen Brazoban until September, too late for him to make the postseason roster. (Besides, Mota was worn down, posting a 5+ ERA for the Marlins in September.) Also, without the Trade, we never would've been able to acquire Finley, and without Fins, the Giants almost certainly would have ran down the Dodgers in the stretch. Plaschke is determined to hold DePodesta's feet to the fire, even if logic, reason, and an unexpected division championship all need to be summarily dismissed for him to make his case.

Over 200,000 fans attended sporting events in Los Angeles on Saturday, and they saw USC, UCLA, and the Dodgers all win. This was one of the times I've truly been sad to not be in LA anymore. I wish I could have been around to experience some of that atmosphere. My busy schedule will likely keep me away from blogging for awhile longer, but college football, the Lakers, and the hot stove league will be commanding my attention soon enough. Hopefully, I won't overdose on Yankees-Sawx blather over the next week or so.

Thanks again, Dodgers. It was a great season, and I'll expect more of the same in 2005. How about a World Series appearance this time?

Sunday, October 03, 2004

The Exorcists

My God.

No one who's reading this needs to be told how amazing yesterday's win was. You saw it. You know it.

I will say, all hyperbole aside, that it was the greatest moment in Dodger history since Kirk Gibson's homerun. The pain of 1991 and 1992, the unfulfilled promise of the Piazza years, the Trade, the dark years of the Davey Johnson/Kevin Malone era, were all swept aside in one magnificent half-hour.

No matter what happens in the playoffs, you get the feeling now that the organization has finally turned the corner.

It was absolution for the Dodger fans who've been questioning their faith in recent years, and vindication for those whose faith never wavered. It's been tough to be a Dodger fan lately. We're witnessing the longest stretch without a pennant or a playoff berth in L.A. history. We've endured seven humiliating seasons behind the Giants in the standings. We've watched that misbegotten Orange County team suddenly challenge our boys for So-Cal supremacy. We needed this.

A routine win, where they led the game from the beginning and let Gagne close it down at the end, would've done the job nicely yesterday. But it just wouldn't have been worthy of this team to clinch the division in such a de riguer fashion. This is a team that has 53 come-from-behind wins, and has led a game from start-to-finish only once in the last five weeks. They don't do anything the easy way. You just knew that for them to win the division, they were going to do it in cardiac style. And besides, there were 16 years of demons living in that ballpark. Dodger Stadium needed an exorcism.

Anyway, now it's on to St. Louis, where the Dodgers will be an enormous underdog to the best team in the National League. A sweep at the hands of the Cardinals is not an unlikely scenario, but I'm not even going to let that ruin what has been the most pleasurable Dodger season since the magic year of 1988. No matter how it ends, I'll consider 2004 a success.

But a playoff win would be nice.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

The Spirit of '96

I'm going to get off a post on how the final weekend of 2004 is eerily shaping up to be very similar to the final weekend of 1996, although I see that Dodger Thoughts already beat me to it. Both years the Dodgers had the lead going into the final four games of the season, and were playing the final series at home against the very team challenging them for the division title.

In 1996, the result was a catastrophe. Via Jon:

9/25/96: Dodgers lead NL West by 2 1/2 games
9/26/96: Giants 6, Dodgers 1 - Dodgers lead by 2 games
9/27/96: Padres 5, Dodgers 2 (10) - Dodgers lead by 1 game
9/28/96: Padres 4, Dodgers 2 - Dodgers and Padres tied
9/29/96: Padres 2, Dodgers 0 (11) - Padres win NL West by 1 game

The thing was, nobody on the Dodgers seemed to regard at is much of a catastrophe. Both teams clinched playoff berths on Saturday, so even though they were playing heads-up for the division title on Sunday, the game was a snoozer with starters pulled out of the game and no sense of urgency at all. What should have been a hair-raising pennant race climax became an exhibition warm-up for the playoffs. Even worse, I remember some speculation going around that the wild-card might be more advantageous, because it possibly offered a better first-round matchup. (This was, and remains, the absolute low point of the wild-card era.) The Dodgers shrugged off the sweep/collapse and ended up with the wild-card, where the Braves gave them an object lesson in what happens to teams who blithely back into the playoffs.

There will be no backing into the playoffs this year. If the Dodgers don't win again this season, they are going home for the winter. I'm probably worrying too much, but there are already some troubling signs, not the least of which is Eric Gagne's suddenly sore shoulder. I don't like the fact that in our first game without Bradley, the Dodger offense couldn't get more than three hits off of four crappy Rockies pitchers. I don't like the fact that just when we needed him to step up and be K-Rod c. 2002, Yhency Brazoban is suddenly struggling. I don't like that Lima and his broken finger are starting tonight, and I don't like the way the pitching matchups against the Giants on Saturday and Sunday are shaping up. Of course, it just wouldn't be the Dodgers if there weren't controversies and question marks and distractions swirling around the team. We should all be used to it by now.

Hideo Nomo and Darren Dreifort are the only Dodgers left from the 1996 team, hard as it is to believe. However, Nomo is busy practicing his tree-stump impressions, and I don't think Dreifort's wheelchair, full-body cast, iron lung, and inflatable protective bubble can fit down the runway to the dugout, so hopefully Steve Finley, a Padre in '96, can remind the team of past lessons learned and keep them focused on the prize.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

In a Year That's Been So Improbable...

Words fail to describe it, really. In a game where the Dodgers looked absolutely flat, dead, and buried, they pull off their first 4-run 9th inning comeback since 1962. That now makes 51 come-from-behind wins this year, one shy of the franchise record. Amazing what a shaky starting rotation, an opportunistic offense, and a never-say-die attitude can do for a team.

God bless the Rockies. Giant fans are apoplectic over this team's inability to hold a lead against the Dodgers, and they certainly have a right to be steamed. Since last weekend, Colorado has twice coughed up 5-run leads in Denver, a 2-run lead in the 8th on Monday, and worst of all, a 4-run lead in the ninth last night. For the Giants, those four games are the difference between a 3-game deficit in the division and 1-game lead. The Rockies have not been living up to their roles as spoilers. Not that I have a problem with that.

Of course, Colorado still has two opportunites to spoil things for the Dodgers, so I won't join the Rockies fan club just yet. And if Giant fans are irritated with the Rocks, then Dodger fans have a right to be pissed at the Padres. After mauling us for five wins in seven September games, San Diego has lost three of four so far to the Giants. So turnabout is fair play, at least when talking about crappy divisional rivals.

Obviously, there's no way to discuss last night's game without talking about Milton Bradley. Honestly, I don't care too much about Milton's behavior. We all know he has a temper, and we all know he's capable of losing it in spectacular fashion in the middle of a game. It's part of the Milton Bradley package. Leaving five runners on base, then making a costly error on a fly ball lost in the lights had Milton primed for an explosion. And then some moron threw a bottle at him...

And that is the worst part of the whole incident. What the hell is going on when Dodger fans, who used to be among the classiest fans in baseball, are throwing bottles at our own players? That's the kind of behavior I always associated with cold, empty nights at Candlestick Park in the 1980s. That's not supposed to happen at Dodger Stadium.

The only thing I can figure is that when fans are used to excellence, they behave excellently. When they become frustrated by the team's constant ineptitude, they start to behave poorly. Giant fans in the 1980s were the most wretched in baseball, but there's been a marked improvement up there, coinciding with this little "golden era" they've been enjoying in recent years (the opening of SBC Park, Barry's steroid regimen, etc.) By contrast, Dodger fans have endured frustration on top of frustration for more than a decade now, and it shows in the collective behavior at the Stadium. The Bradley incident was ugly, but last year, a Dodger fan killed a Giant fan in the parking lot after a game. Simply adding more and more security isn't the answer. (Nobody wants to feel like they're watching a game at a prison yard.) The problem is more systemic than that. When a team is first-class, it shows, from the top ranks of management on down to the fans. The Dodgers used to be like that in the O'Malley era. They got away from that in the wilderness years since, and it's up to the McCourts to restore it.

All this detracts from one of the Dodgers' most sensational games, in a year that's been filled with them. The division lead remains three, with five games to play. I hope Milton's suspension is light, and I hope the fan who threw that bottle is prosecuted, and barred from ever again setting foot in Dodger Stadium.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Glad to See I Wasn't the Only One

Eric Neel, who is quickly becoming my favorite online columnist, has a diary up of the 3-game series in San Francisco. Neel is a diehard Dodger fan, and the piece is terrific.

This is what the Dodgers and Giants do. This ain't no one-sided, David-and-Goliath, Sox-and-Yanks sort of thing. This is Akroyd and Curtain going blow-for-blow. This is Beatrice and Benedict going, "I know you of old." This is real rivalry.

The two teams have finished 1-2 seven times. They've played dead even head-to-head in the last seven years.

It's like Capone and Ness. They Bobby Thomson us, we 12-1 them as a no-soup-for-you capper to their pretty (as in pretty meaningless) 103-win season in '93. That's just how it is. That's just how it's always been.
Like I said, terrific.